It takes a guru, a pricey pram and a village
By Gina Piccalo
June 18, 2006
With older and more affluent parents on the rise, the child-rearing instinct is out and a toll-taking anxiety is in.
A woman wearing her baby in a sling across her chest like an indigenous mother in Zambia considered the selection of $130 car seat covers and $200 diaper bags at the Pump Station, a high-end boutique for breastfeeding moms in Santa Monica. Moving inland to Silver Lake, a group of new mothers compared the failings of their own 1970s-era parents — Playpens! The horror! — as they studied their babies, talking them through every tiny transition with the intensity and purpose that Jane Goodall directed at her chimpanzees. And in a Beverly Hills OB-GYN office, just days before a state referendum on universal preschool was defeated, a woman discussed sending her as-yet-unborn child to private preschool even though it will cost more than her four years of college.
These scenes of baby-raising today in Los Angeles are reproduced in urban, affluent areas all over the country among a new breed of parents who are older, educated and intimate with psychotherapy. Now in their 30s and 40s, this group was the original latchkey generation, the products of what historian and economist Neil Howe terms “the most under-protected period of child rearing in the 20th century.” They came of age when the American divorce rate had spiked and the feminist movement had upended notions of family life. They’re painfully aware of their inner children and their abandonment issues. So naturally, as parents, they’re protective, involved and, yes, neurotic, with an unprecedented, slavish devotion to parenting that is driving a new, very expensive, very exhausting lifestyle. Thanks to this trend, a new term is entering the cultural lexicon: extreme parenting.
Although U.S. women under 29 still have the majority of babies, as they have historically, the most recent figures (from 2003) show that their birth rates are declining. In the case of women 20 to 24, they’re reaching record lows. Yet women age 35 to 44, many aided by advances in infertility treatments including in vitro fertilization, are having babies at rates unseen since the 1960s — about twice what they were in 1990. And in affluent communities nationwide, these older mothers are especially vocal and visible, showing off their late-life fertility — and costly baby apparatus — with unprecedented fervor.
For them, the job begins at conception because, as perinatal psychologists tell them, even fetuses are precocious, possessing the ability to communicate and play games from the womb. After birth, parents dig in with a psychologist’s scrutiny of their infant’s emotional life, always mindful of developmental milestones and signs of “secure attachment.” They buy the Miracle Blankets and the Infant Sound Conditioners and watch the DVDs that teach the backbreaking art of baby wearing. They learn baby sign language to keep that all-important infant-parent dialogue going. They rearrange their lives to keep to their baby’s nap schedule.
And even then, all this isn’t enough unless you’re absolutely joyful about the whole thing, because kids are so perceptive and they know when you’re faking and the whole point here is to raise authentic children.
“It’s a quest for the fine-tuned, well-controlled family life of the kind that didn’t prevail in the 1970s,” said Ann Hulbert, author of the 2003 book “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.” “And that promises to produce the kind of high-performing and focused kids who will thrive in an ever more competitive meritocracy.”
In this environment, the concept of Attachment Parenting (AP) has grown from a fringe approach to a sort of institution, with 80 support groups in 11 countries and an international nonprofit that just hosted its first conference last month. Capistrano Beach pediatrician Dr. William Sears and his nurse wife, Martha, have been elevated to celebrity status, pushing sales of “The Baby Book,” their 750-plus page tome first published in 1992, past a million copies and making their famous “seven Baby Bs”– birth bonding, breastfeeding, belief in baby’s cries, baby wearing, bed sharing, “beware of baby trainers” and boundaries and balance — de rigueur for many. His most devoted followers echo his ideas unquestioningly, as they buy the Searses’ line of baby slings and await the arrival of their nutrition products, coming this fall.
Thanks to the Searses’ guidance, they’d just as soon feed their baby to wolves as try the common “cry it out” method to get her to sleep through the night. (Even the original “cry it out” guru, Richard Ferber, has been bitten by the Sears bug, softening his original advice in the latest edition of his famous book “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.” A parent who is following AP weans a child when the child decides it’s time. The same goes for the bed sharing. And the baby wearing.
“It’s a style of caring for your child that you would naturally do if Mom, Dad and baby were on a deserted island,” William Sears said recently.
Exhausted parents suddenly struck by a sense of entitlement might fire back: But we live in Los Angeles! In air-conditioned bungalows! Can’t we put the baby down? Live a little?
And so in desperation, these sleepless souls might turn to another niche approach moveing into the mainstream — this one on the opposite end of the touchy-feely spectrum — the Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) method. Founded in Silver Lake in the late 1970s by the nonagenarian Hungarian immigrant Magda Gerber, RIE teaches parents to “do less” because, as the idea goes, autonomy must start in infancy if a child is to grow into a self-assured adult.
Parents who “do” RIE (pronounced “rye”) give their babies steady feedback — a play-by-play account of diaper changes is key, for example — and there’s a whole litany of “don’ts.” No rattles (overstimulating), no shushing (baby needs to express his feelings), no mirrors or rocking chairs (distorted reality), no praise (they might get hooked on it). Baby needs indoor-outdoor play areas and private time and lots of focused attention — but not too much.
As it turns out, it takes a lot of hard work to actually do less.
These older parents can never be too attentive, because as they keep reminding themselves: It’s. Not. About. Me. They’ve read “Parenting From the Inside Out,” that 2004 book about managing one’s own psychic pain so one’s kids have only happy memories. None of that recycled dysfunction for them. Nope, these kids are going to feel empowered. And nurtured. And above all, valued.
Burgeoning cradle industry
OLDER, affluent parents typically don’t have children on a whim. They dated longer and married later than the generation before them, driven to find the perfect match to help create the happy, “intact” family so many of them missed in their childhoods. Old enough to have well-established careers, this group has more time and money to spend on all things baby than their parents did. And as experienced professionals, they’re accustomed to having lots of control.
They’re the target demo for runway-ready maternity clothes and parenting coaches and $600 sleep specialists and $900 Bugaboo strollers and extravagant “babymoons” and multimillion-dollar redesigns of hospital labor and delivery wards that are pitched to the public like high-end hotel rooms, complete with Jacuzzis, recliners and views.
“They want the best kids and the best products, and they want their kids to be special,” as Corky Harvey, co-owner of the Pump Station, put it. “As parents, they want to get it right.”
They bring a scholarly approach to the task, devouring the universe of baby-raising advice from old-schoolers Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton to newcomers such as Harvey Karp, Gary Ezzo and, of course, the Searses’ oeuvre. They’re often experts in a variety of parenting methods even before their baby is born.
For them, practical advice of the old-fashioned Dr. Benjamin Spock variety isn’t nearly empathetic enough. They want an all-encompassing philosophy to account for every waking moment of their child’s life.
“I kept reading the next book I’d hear about, hoping it had all the answers,” said Kandus Simpson, 39, formerly a corporate communications executive, now a stay-at-home mother of two. “The process of gathering the information was somewhat comforting. I felt more secure doing it, but I could have had an entire roomful of books and it wouldn’t have felt secure enough.”
They know, for example, as William and Martha Sears tell them in “The Attachment Parenting Book,” that humans are a “constant-contact” species, producing milk designed to be consumed frequently so the healthiest child is carried constantly and breastfed on demand.
And they know that according to “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” author Marc Weissbluth, babies sleep best in their cribs, not their car seats or their strollers, so really conscientious parents will stay home instead of subjecting their babies to the cruel fate of running errands.
In fact, a child’s sleep habits are often the most highly charged aspect of parents’ lives, as everyone now believes that the way a baby falls to sleep can mean the difference between a salutatorian and the kid selling pot in the parking lot. Like politics and religion, the “co-sleeping” versus “cry it out” conversation is best avoided in mixed company.
“There’s just so much information available to us now,” said Jillian Yost, 31, a Santa Monica social worker and mother of a 16-month-old son. “It’s a lot easier to talk about parenting styles. There’s so much literature and research. There’s all kinds of parenting groups and Mommy and Me’s, and they’re run by educated professionals. When I grew up, I know my mom did not have that kind of support at all.”
These parents “wield their psychological literacy as a shield,” writes Judith Warner, author of the 2005 bestseller “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.” “With it, they can do no harm. Cause no pain. Avoid fatal errors.”
Of course, there’s a good deal of narcissism behind this brand of self-sacrifice. On one hand, this group of thirty- and fortysomethings, like every generation of parents before them, wants their children to have happier childhoods than they did. On the other, they’re perhaps subconsciously trying to reparent themselves.
What not to do
“I pretty much decided that how I was parenting was going to be the exact opposite of how I was parented,” said Bonny Skolnik, 32, who practices Attachment Parenting with her 3-year-old daughter. “I’m really trying to respect my daughter and not belittle her, not make her feel bad about herself emotionally.”
They were born during the 1960s and ’70s, the time of the Zero Population Growth movement that spawned slogans such as “None Is Fun” and “Jesus Was an Only Child.” Their parents, who recalled their sheltered youths of the 1940s and ’50s, often treated their kids as miniature adults, granting them the freedoms they themselves yearned for as youngsters.
It was a time when children had free reign of their neighborhoods, when babies amused themselves in playpens under clouds of their mothers’ cigarette smoke, when good parents were those who simply kept their kids clothed and fed. No one talked about emotional health other than to say, “Kids are resilient. They’ll get over it.”
“They were left alone a lot,” said Howe. “If you have a problem, no one’s really in charge. That was really the message of the 1970s, that adults are people you negotiate with, but they don’t really control anything.”
But to many parents who were raised then, the notion of control has expanded in every imaginable direction. They take classes to learn how to enhance their infant’s cognitive development, how to reduce toxins in their baby’s environment, how to make their own baby food and how to choose the best preschool because, as L.A. mother Tami Harris joked, “If you get in the right preschool, you’ll end up going to Harvard.”
They choreograph every moment of their baby’s delivery — now commonly known as “the birth experience” — with typed memos or “birth plans” dictating everything from the number of vaginal exams during labor to the aftercare of their infant (Wash her in my presence! Breast only! Save the placenta!). They rig up their nursery with movement sensors that sound an alarm if their baby lies still for longer than 20 seconds.
“One of the things women our age face is the ‘I’ve had a career. I’ve been successful and had some power,’ ” said Harris. “You have a baby and suddenly you have no control…. It’s hard to let go of some of that.”
Worry, worry, worry
ONLINE chats are aflame with worry: Are butterfly wings toxic? Does the TV give off too much radiation? And does anyone know where to buy sanitized sandbox sand? They blog and blog and blog on tens of thousands of sites about teaching compassion and empowering their kids and raising high achievers — while also trying to fend off perfectionism. “Now is the time to let go of trying to be the perfect parent,” wrote a blogger on Mommybloggers.com, “and just hold on as tight as I can to be the good-enough Mom.”
“The dominant ethos is that parenting is a pursuit about which you cannot know too much,” said Hulbert. “And you should be spending a lot of time informing yourself and feeling anxious about it.”
Warner contends that this has led to legions of depressed mothers and sexless marriages and children who have no boundaries. Women of this generation, she contends, many of whom had cast off ambition, sublimating their own needs for the sake of the children, look a lot like the desperate housewives of the early 1960s. Instead of Valium, she writes, they take methamphetamine.
“Our refusal to let our children ‘cry it out’ at night and our penchant for cosleeping [is] producing a generation of dangerously sleep deprived mothers, plodding through life in what one study called a generalized ‘state of despair,’ ” writes Warner.
Actor Noah Wyle and his wife, Tracy, have raised their young son, Owen, now 3, and their 8-month-old daughter, Auden, with the AP philosophy without relying on nannies. Wyle, during a 2005 interview with AP pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon posted on Gordon’s website, explained that his character was temporarily written out of the long-running NBC show “ER” so he could spend four months practicing Attachment Parenting.
“You have to give up what you might think you deserve, like sleep or food,” Tracy Wyle half-joked during the interview. “And you have to keep doing it…. But you have to ask yourself, ‘Did you do this so you could get a good night’s sleep?’ ”
All this hand-wringing inevitably led to a comparative study, published June 6 in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, that sought to end the wrenching “cry it out” versus “co-sleeping” debate and give doctors real guidelines to pass along to anxious parents. The study looked at the crying and sleep habits of a group of London parents’ “scheduled” babies who got less contact and were allowed to cry more, the “on-demand” babies of another London group who were held 80% of the day and slept with their parents, as well as a third group of Copenhagen families that used a combination of both.
The results will no doubt give pause to all those new parents desperately looking for a clear-cut answer to this, as to all, gray areas of child-rearing. A little of both, the study showed, does the trick. In other words, parents practicing moderation, of all things, makes for the most well-adjusted babies.